Aug. 22, 2008 — The Senate Committee on Housing Sports and Veterans' Affairs approved and sent out of committee Thursday two bills limiting legal liability, one for owners of land used for public recreation — such as the proposed St. Croix bike path — and the other for those involved with equine pursuits like horse racing.
The first bill is aimed at making it easier to persuade landowners to grant easements for a potential St. Croix bike path, but would limit liability for any landowner who lets the public use the land for recreation.
The bill's explanation says a limitation on liability would "encourage owners of land to allow non-commercial public recreational use of land which would not otherwise be open to the public, thereby reducing government expenditures to provide such areas."
Under the terms of the bill, the landowner who allows public recreation would not have a duty to keep the area safe or post any warning signs or do anything to the property. The landowner thus would not be penalized with extra expenses as a result of letting the public use the land.
An owner or lessee would not be liable for injury to someone who came onto the property for recreation. Landowners are hesitant to allow the bike path on their land if there is a possibility they could be sued by a cyclist who has an accident.
Doctors, police, biking enthusiasts and others spoke in support of the bill, principally because they support a bike path and the bill would bring one closer to reality.
V.I. Police Sgt. Joseph D. Platt testified a bike path would make it safer for cyclists on the road.
"The passing of this bill will aid in assuring the landowners that by allowing their lands to be used to construct a path, they won't be held liable for any unforeseen accidents," Platt said. "And the bill will provide for a safe route for bicyclists and pedestrians to exercise."
Olasee Davis, ecologist with the University of the Virgin Islands, said a bike path would help forge a brand name for St. Croix as a heritage or eco-tourism destination and benefit health and quality of life for Crucians. Robert Hoffman and Robert W. White, executive director and president of Cruzan Bikeways respectively, testified as well.
Construction of the path would be financed by the Federal Highway Authority from the yearly allocation of funds granted to the Virgin Islands, said Juancito Gario, president of the St. Croix-340 cycling team. Federal officials in Puerto Rico have indicated to the V.I. Department of Public Works the path would be an appropriate use of federal monies, he said.
Cruzan Bikeways, the organization promoting the bike path, engaged a design firm and finalized a plan in December of 2007. Coastal Zone Management gave its informal approval of the plan pending acquiring easements and preparation of environmental studies. The Department of Public Works is reviewing the proposed new rights of way along the entire route and has issued a request for proposals for title companies to establish clear legal ownership of all affected parcels, he said.
Sen. Louis Hill asked well-known St. Croix race sponsor and member of Cruzan Bikeways Wallace Williams whether the bike path could be accomplished without this bill.
"The bike path runs parallel to the main road for most of its path," Williams said. With liability as a concern, "it would be extremely difficult for this project to go forward without this legislation."
Voting yea on the bill were Hill, Sens. Neville James, Shawn-Michael Malone, Usie Richards, Alvin Williams and Celestino White. There were no votes of nay. Sen. Carmen Wesselhoft was absent.
The second liability-limiting bill would make horse owners, trainers, and equine activity sponsors immune from liability for injury, death or damage "resulting from an inherent risk of equine activity."
Testifiers from the territory's horse owners associations, equestrian federation, horse racing commissions and St. Croix horse track operator Traxco all supported the bill and asked to broaden the list of people and situations protected from liability.
"One of the factors making live horse racing a losing proposition is the cost associated with the sport's exposure arising out of the liability and danger that is inherent in activity dealing with horses," said Todd Newman, an attorney for Traxco.
Voting yea to pass the bill out of committee were Hill, James, Malone, Richards, Williams and White. There were no votes of nay. Sen. Carmen Wesselhoft was absent. Both bills now go for consideration by the Rules and Judiciary Committee.
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